Access to car codes may affect business

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 13, 2002

As the technology in automobiles increases, it may affect independent automotive repair shop's business.

Sen. Paul Wellstone D-Minn. has said it already is hurting independent business and that something should be done about it.

Computers run many parts of an automobile and to diagnose a problem, a code must be used. For the most part those codes are available only to dealerships.

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Because independent mechanics do not have access to those codes, they sometimes have to turn away customers.

Wellstone's bill would force automobile manufacturers to share those codes with the car's owner, the mechanic and the Federal Trade Commission, according to Wellstone's statement on his Web site.

Tom Davidson, a technician at Tiny's Auto Body Shop, has considered both sides of the issue.

The codes are part of the automobile manufacturer's product, he said, but not having access to the codes does affect the services he can provide.

Recently, Davidson had to take a customer's 2001 Audi A4 to a dealership in Rochester to have a seat belt fixed.

"It makes for more cost for us and more cost for the customer and more for insurance companies," Davidson said.

But he said if he were a manufacturer, he would not want to share the codes, either.

Tom Sherman of USEM, a General Motors dealership, does not think sharing the codes should be an issue. He said the manufacturers own the codes because they are part of its franchise.

"It's no different from McDonald's being a franchise," Sherman said. "It's the same theory."

Sherman also said that customers usually prefer to have their automobiles fixed at the dealership, especially because services are free for as long as the warranty lasts.

Car codes are available to independent automobile repair shops for older cars. Brian, a local independent mechanic who declined to give his last name, said he can work on cars up until 2001. He said he has access to some codes through acquaintances who access them on the Internet.

Books with codes can also be bought at automobile repair stores, such as NAPA Auto Parts for $30 to $40. The systems to access the computer for cars 1994 and older cost about $45, but a different one is needed for each brand. The systems to access the codes for newer cars cost anywhere between $2,000 and $4,000.

"It's gotten real difficult" said James Miller, assistant manager at NAPA Auto Parts in Austin, about accessing codes.

If Brian was not able to access computer codes, he said he it would affect his business.

"I would probably just quit repairing cars," Brian said.

Cari Quam can be reached at 434-2235 or by e-mail at